Coming to terms with the past
GHOSTS OF SPAIN by Giles Tremlett Faber, £14.99, pp. 440,
✆ £11.99 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655 Ghosts there are, but do not be afraid, Giles Tremlett’s brilliant evocation of Spain delineated by its hidden enmities — and by its difference from the rest of Europe — is not just a tour of the atrocities of the Civil War. Yet, since the beginning of the new millennium, the literal unearthing of the unmarked graves of hundreds murdered by death squads in that war has broken a tacit pact of silence that, it had been supposed, was necessary to heal the wounds of fratricidal hatred inflicted seven decades ago.
Silence, Tremlett notes, is foreign to a country ‘famous for noise’. But silence about the Civil War was partly tapando vergüenzas — covering up shame. The whole of one village on the border of Old Castile might know that on the bend of the road by the asparagus field (well outside the pueblo) three women were shot dead by a gang of gunmen on that night of 29 December 1936. But it was a matter for the pueblo, almost a family secret, not the business of national television, politicians.
‘They killed my mother,’ the daughter of one of those three women tells Tremlett. ‘I have always hated them for it and I always will.’ So, are the families of the victims meant to leave their dead buried in ditches? Giles Tremlett is taken, at last, to the hard-won reburial ceremony by Mariano, a triumphant campaigner who has a business card ‘Trabajador y Activista Social’ Worker and Social Activist. By the time the reburials are complete, the author feels, ‘the embers of ancient loathings have begun to glow again’.
Later he is told by the woman who is now mayor of that village of 700 people that, in the nine weeks earlier in the autumn of 1936 when it was under the control of the ‘reds’, its little church was used as a prison to hold ‘rightist’ suspects, and there were dozens of killings. ‘One lot finished and the next lot started. They killed one another as much for village arguments and old hatreds as for anything else.’ But the parish priest was paraded in a horse’s bridle, made to drink vinegar, then killed. Today’s mayor is the niece of a Nationalist gunman who boasted of the reds he’d killed, 501 by his count. So he gained the nickname Quinientos Uno — ‘Five-O-One’. But a nickname, mote, in Spain as much as anywhere, is a two-edged tool. Tremlett is encouraged by Mariano the activist to go a few miles down the road to Candeleda to seek out another gunman El Sartén (The Fryingpan). There, among Chupahuesos (Bonesucker), and Mataperros (Dog-killer) and Cagamillones (Shit-millions, a man who’d boasted about his wealth), he eventually runs down Frying-pan to his chair in an old people’s home. This wizened agricultural labourer, sitting among frail, white-haired bingo players, explains that he was just 17 years old in 1936, and anyway he was fighting at the front when the killings at home began. As they converse, the matron of the home bobs up and down behind the old man, blowing smoke from an imaginary pair of pistols. ‘This man was one of the ones who killed for cash,’ she says when they are alone.
To understand why Spain has still not come to terms with the Civil War it is necessary to realise fully that there is no consensus there about which side ought to have won. Almost all educated Englishspeakers, surely, assume that the wrong side did. Not so in Spain, in the generation or two after the events. Even in 2001 the head of the Spanish constitutional court could say, albeit at the cost of a row in the newspapers, that ‘the immense majority’ of Spaniards had been franquistas.
The years of Francoism began with a decade of poverty and oppression, and at the Caudillo’s death in 1975 ‘by tacit national consent the regime was relegated to oblivion’, in words that Tremlett quotes from Franco’s biographer Paul Preston. It was another addition to the pacto de olvido. But if the other side had won? What would a Spain ruled by Stalinists vying with Anarchists have been like? That is not a counterfactual that Tremlett explores.
The Nationalists were able to regard war against the ‘reds’, even if it cost the destruction of half the country, as a cruzada, like the eight centuries of reconquista that pushed the Moors out of Spain. And here Tremlett, a foreign correspondent who has made his home in Spain, ironically catches himself out. Looking out over the old Moorish lanes of Granada one day in the new century, he thought to himself, ‘Here was one piece of history that Spaniards were not about to argue over.’ The heritage of the Muslim realm of alAndalus was just a great draw for tourists. But the bombing of 11 March 2004 (11M), in which 192 died, showed him he ‘could not have been more wrong’.
José Maria Aznar, who lost an election after that bombing, said a few months later, ‘Spain’s problem with al-Qa’eda started in the eighth century.’ He was mocked for that remark, but one of the tapes released by Osama bin Laden revealed him to be of the same mind: ‘The economy of all Arab countries is less than the economy of one country that had once been part of our world’ — Spain. And, as Tremlett points out, a tape salvaged from the hideout of the Madrid bombers spoke of Spain as the ‘land of Tariq bin Zayad’. Tariq was the Berber who led the Muslim invaders across the Straits of Gibraltar in AD 711. History keeps coming back, unburied once more.
Between the 100 compelling pages on the Civil War and his chapter on 11-M (pronounced on-thay em-ay, by the way) Tremlett devotes a couple of hundred pages to some peculiarities of Spanish life. One in 17 Spanish men, a survey found, had visited a brothel in the past year, and so the Guardian correspondent goes off nervously to inspect a 100-girl neon palace on a motorway. In another chapter he shows why Spain is the ‘El Dorado’ for couples bringing up children. He also traces the emblematic growth of Benidorm — the ‘Skegness of the Med’ — from the day in 1959 when its mayor risked excommunication by allowing the bikini.
There is more sunshine than ghostliness in this vivid and sensitive book, which will interpret Spain to present-day visitors as Gerald Brenan and V. S Pritchett did for former generations. Giles Tremlett ends with the judgment that Spain is suffering ‘deepening divisions’ now that the past is being dug up. Other things are changing rapidly too. The past three decades have seen a ‘communal Spanish aim of becoming more like other Europeans’. As a Hispanophile his conclusion is implicitly conservative: ‘What many Spaniards have not yet learned to do is love the idea of their own difference. And that is strange. Because it is precisely why so many outsiders, including this anglosajón, love them so.’